Master Sommelier Jonathan Pullis
If you’re like a lot of wine lovers, you’ve thought about collecting wine (or for most people, stashing some away in a closet), but you haven’t known where to start. All the googling in the world won’t necessarily get you all the wine you want, and for most people, neither will your bank account. But have no fear. Just as there is a wine style for everybody there is also a collecting style for everybody too. We here happen to think that the wines from Ribera del Duero and Rueda are the best places to start, but it’s helpful to know a few basics about wine cellaring no matter where the wine is from.
First, let’s get some semantics out of the way. This is not about wine collecting as an investment. We’ll leave that for another day and maybe another lifetime. Instead, this is about how to get the most bang for your buck when you’d like to put a few wines down for that special occasion or to have alongside that incredible grilled leg of lamb you got from your local farmer.
Now, let’s talk about that closet. If it’s somewhere close to your oven or in the path of the sun, then forget about it unless you go the extra mile to install a temperature regulating system. Ideally, wine should be stored in a lower level and/or cool dark space with a consistent temperature hovering between 55˚F and 68˚F. The bottles should be stored on their sides in order to keep the corks wet – another key to long-term wine aging. Shrunken corks allow oxygen in, which is not a wine’s friend. Once you’ve got all these elements in place, then let’s keep going.
Many people believe it’s necessary to buy an entire case of wine if the intention is to put some away for a while. But unless you’re looking to create a star cellar and you have lots of space, most wine experts say that three bottles of each wine is a great start. That means drink one soon, drink the second one in a year, and drink the third one in five years. You will learn how and whether the wine was worth saving as well as when its optimum drinking window is (or was). If you wait years to drink all three, you may have missed the wine’s best moment. And yes – by buying just three you run the risk of missing out on having your all-time favorite wine, but you can be pretty sure the next “all-time favorite wine” is right around the corner. So much wine, so little time.
This said, if you fall in love with a wine after you’ve tasted the first bottle, then by all means get more while you can. Most wines improve with age, so you’re probably pretty safe buying more and holding it for great wine experiences down the road.
Master Sommelier Jonathan Pullis from Madame Ushi Aspen in Colorado suggests a practical approach. “The best way to start collecting wine is to purchase more than you consume. It is obvious, but many people still go to the wine shop and select wines [only] for their meal that evening. If you have the financial means and storage space, I would definitely suggest doing a quick calculation of how many bottles you drink per week/month and then purchase [accordingly],” he says.
Cellaring white wines
Let’s get down to brass tacks. What to buy? To start, let’s talk about white wines. These are inherently trickier than reds for a variety of reasons. For one, they’re mostly made to be drunk sooner – simple as that. But this is where oak is your friend, says Eduardo Bolaños, Spanish wine buyer at the Wine House in Los Angeles. “The high-end wines of the world use oak in some way. It gives the wine the structure that it needs [for long-term aging],” he says.
Rueda Verdejo is no different. A longer-aged wine and one aged in oak will almost certainly be the best candidate for your cellar, er, closet. Also, many Verdejos have screw caps rather than corks. This too will allow you to hold the wine longer, says Bolaños. However, he cautions that collecting white wine is a little bit of trial and error because not all white wines are meant to age. He says those with high acidity (like Verdejo!) and/or high sugar like Riesling are the best candidates for your cellar.
Additionally, look for the phrase “lees-aging” on bottles of Rueda Verdejo as this too is a window into the wine’s age worthiness. Wines that have been lees-aged have been in extended contact with the spent yeast cells that result from fermentation. In turn, this makes for a fuller, creamy texture and usually a wine destined for longer-term aging.
Maybe your best indicator of an age-worthy wine is the newest Rueda DO designation – Gran Vino de Rueda. These wines have been made exclusively with grapes from vines at least 30 years old. Likewise, the conversion rate of must (seeds and skins) to every kilo of grapes “must” be less than 65 percent. This translates to using the highest quality free-run juice to produce the wines. In addition, the wines may not be released before at least one year of aging. This designation is possible in Rueda in particular because of the abundance of pre-phylloxera vines – i.e., vines that were not destroyed by the infestation of a devastating root louse around the turn of the 20th century. This all adds up to the fact that Gran Vino de Rueda Verdejos should be nestled in your newfound cellar pronto.
Tempranillo for the ages
Pretty much since the beginning of time, or at least wine, red wine has been laid down in dusty cellars for consumption now and later – sometimes much later as in decades or even over a century. But how do you know if the red wine you like is going to improve with age? Alas, you don’t. But there are a few ways to approach red wine cellaring.
First, it’s important to remember that a wine, whether white or red, will change over time. Sure, this is obvious, but you must be honest with yourself and decide if you really like some of the tertiary flavors that come to the fore after a red wine has been laid down – flavors like tar, leather, mushroom-y, and so on as well as the softer tannins that result. Or do you prefer the primary fruit flavors and bigger tannins of a more youthful wine instead? If the latter is your jam (ahem), then don’t spend time or money (or waste closet space) aging wine. But if you want to see the journey a bottle of wine takes, then buy and drink a bottle or two now and hold another bottle or two (or more) for later. Simple as that.
Also, if you know you love a certain vintage from a certain region, then buy it now. It won’t be available when you’re ready to taste it five or ten years down the line.
Look for wine that has been well aged before its release. Sure, you could say that it’s been “pre-aged” and ready to drink because of that, but really what it means is that the wine is age-worthy and can handle a good long slumber in the dark and cool. This is when you really want to have at least three bottles. Taste that aged wine when you buy it. Taste it a year from now. Taste it five years from now. That’s when the wine’s staying power will be revealed.
Conveniently, this last point leads us directly to Ribera del Duero, home of Castilla y León’s King of Grapes, Tempranillo. There are four official categories of Ribera del Duero Tempranillo – Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva, and Cosecha. The first three indicate specific aging methods and time periods, and the latter is a bit of a catch-all though it includes some of the region’s most heralded wines. What cuts across all Ribera del Dueros is the attention paid to viticulture, the centuries of tradition that inform the winemaking, and the modern-day know-how. All together, these elements create stunning wine.
The trajectory of a Ribera del Duero Tempranillo and, for that matter, other bigger-style red wines, is usually one from big and bold to softer and more elegant. But Bolaños says that it’s not a bad thing to drink a few of these wines right away, underscoring the fact these wines have already spent a lot of time in the barrel and in bottle. While they’re ready to drink right away, they improve over time – that is, they open up and the oak tannins are more integrated. “It mellows out,” he says. Pullis adds, “The more structured and complex the wine, the longer it can age and improve. Make sure you open a bottle every year or so. You don’t want to miss the fireworks.” He’s got that right.
As anyone who’s had a Ribera del Duero Tempranillo knows, pretty much every bottle promises an explosion of flavor no matter its age. Just remember that your wine collecting can begin small. Equally important, the wines don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Many age-worthy bottles of Ribera del Duero Tempranillo can be found around $50 or less (and, of course, much more if you’re into splurging), while ageable Verdejos will cost between $30.00 and $40.00. As with Ribera del Duero Tempranillos, though, pricier Rueda Verdejos exist as well. Whatever’s in your wallet will help determine what goes into your cellar. Just remember to buy multiples of the wines you buy and open them on a regular basis. Heaven forbid you miss those fireworks.
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